Where Should the Covid-Conscious Dine? It’s All About Risk.
Readers want to know where they can feel safe, but the answer is different for everyone.
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By Nikita Richardson
“Do restaurants even care about Covid-conscious diners anymore?” A version of this question has appeared in the Where to Eat inbox on a regular basis since I started writing this newsletter nearly a year ago. And to be honest, I didn’t quite feel comfortable making risk assessments for anyone other than myself.
“Risk tolerance is essentially how much risk do you think is too risky for you, and that’s notoriously subjective,” Dien Ho, a professor of philosophy and health care ethics at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, told me. “What is risky for one person is completely pedestrian for the next.”
So, he said, ask these three questions when assessing how reasonable it is for you to dine out: How vulnerable am I? How risky is it for me to dine out? And how am I going to affect other people, including family, friends and acquaintances, if I decide to?
“There’s no magic formula,” Dr. Ho said.
Many New Yorkers are clearly ready to carry on as before. There’s been a voracious enthusiasm for going out to eat, for feeling “normal.” But since Mayor Eric Adams’s decision to lift the vaccine mandate for indoor dining in March 2022, there’s no guarantee that your fellow diners are vaccinated. And as city regulators and residents work to close many outdoor dining structures, some restaurants have given up on maintaining or offering them.
So what should the Covid-conscious and the immunocompromised do?
To start, assess current Covid rates. The Times has a case tracker with the latest trends, as well as tips on how to read Covid data. But because those statistics are based on reported cases, the single best way to monitor the situation, Dr. Ho advised, is to check data on the prevalence of Covid in wastewater. The Centers for Disease Control maintain a National Wastewater Surveillance System website, and the New York State Wastewater Surveillance Network regularly updates its database, which is usually about two weeks behind but easier to navigate than the C.D.C. site. Detection levels in New York City in late January indicated generally high levels of Covid citywide, though that’s the case in almost every major city in the state.
While we’re no longer at the peak of the pandemic, and treatment options are more robust and effective, the threat of long Covid and new mutations of the virus remain. On top of that, roughly 85 percent of New York City residents had not received a bivalent booster shot as of Feb. 2, according to the New York City health department. “We’re nowhere near close to this thing being over,” Dr. Ho said.
Knowing that zero risk is nearly impossible to achieve, here are some best practices for those determined to dine out. For one, Dr. Ho recommended sticking to big, airy restaurants. Insa in Gowanus, Brooklyn, or Isabelle’s Osteria near Union Square are a much safer bet than cozy, I-can-hear-everyone’s-conversation spots.
“You might choose a night that is less popular, less crowded in order to lower your risk,” he said. That would typically be a Monday or Tuesday, or before 6 p.m. most nights of the week.
Still too much risk? Head outside. I spent this week reaching out to (good) restaurants to confirm that their outdoor areas were heated, well-ventilated and, in some cases, built for private parties. There’s Quality Bistro (French, Midtown Manhattan), Wayla (Thai, Lower East Side), Bottino (Italian, Chelsea), Oso (Mexican, Harlem), Rule of Thirds (Japanese, Greenpoint), Motel Morris (new American, Chelsea), Barboncino (Italian, Crown Heights) and Old John’s Luncheonette (old American, Lincoln Square) just to name a few. Don’t be afraid to call or email ahead and confirm, and there are folks at The Infatuation and Eater who have worked tirelessly to compile even more wide-ranging lists. (To be extra safe, consider having everyone in your party get tested before you meet up.)
I know there will never be a perfect answer from me, or from anyone for that matter. How and if you choose to dine is a deeply personal choice. But if you’re Covid-conscious and feel alone, you have not been forgotten. Not by me and certainly not by the restaurant world. Going out just takes more research now — a nice walk around your neighborhood is a great place to start — and I hope this dispatch has been of some help to you or someone you care about.
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